A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Power of Poetry

By Jackson Thomas

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

This is an excerpt of a sermon by Jackson Thomas from 18 October 2017, preached at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, Georgia during the church’s annual Christival: A Celebration of Faith and the Arts series.  Jackson Thomas serves as Youth Ministry Coordinator at Trinity Baptist Church.

Words are incredible tools. Speech is one of the many things that sets us apart from the rest of creation. We have a uniquely human ability to communicate with each other in a very definite way. If someone speaks with a different language, we can even learn that language.  Words are such powerful tools that with the advanced ability to communicate afforded us by the use of words, we have done some truly incredible things as a species.

The way we express ourselves using these tools is multi-faceted. We use words in the form of writing, speaking, and singing all to spread a message.  We have always tried to find a way to make our particular message be remembered for generations. Most prominently, we write the things we want remembered.

The written word is incredible and has an interesting history.  As writing gained popularity it was alleged that Socrates actually hated the concept of the written word because it would “create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls.”  Obviously, this thinking didn’t catch on as writing has become the cornerstone for spreading information.

In fact even that way of thinking wouldn’t be known about today had Plato not written about it for later generations to read. And more than passing along information, writing allowed for an entirely new form of art to express feelings or tell fantastic stories and even worship; especially worship.

The other interesting thing is the forms writing would take. Originally the only proper way of writing was poetry. Prose was considered lazy and uninspired.  There’s a bit of a pattern here, but poetry does provide a particular boon in that the human brain is predisposed to pick up on patterns.  We love patterns. It’s why there have been studies done in which the letters in the middle of a word are jumbled, but so long as the first and last letter are in their proper places, we can generally read what it says.

What’s truly interesting is where these patterns come from.  It’s as if when God breathed life into us, He did it in a song. Because of this rhythm, we have written poetry for as long as the written word has existed. Poetry was most notably utilized as worship in the forms of the Psalms, of which biblical book makes up the single largest text in the Bible.  Psalms express the whole spectrum of human emotion and how it all relates back to God. If God is the Word, how could we ever fully express our truth to Him without utilizing words?   God gave us perhaps an even greater gift in the concepts of meter and rhyme. So, in an attempt to fully utilize God’s gifts, so that we may fully worship Him, I’d like to share a poem.

Breath of life, expand my lungs
And make my life feel whole
Create a song behind my tongue
And let me sing my soul

Let my worship fill the air
And fully resonate
Within the souls of all who hear
So we may celebrate

And when the silence overcomes
And all the songs do end
Then let the rocks cry out their praise
Let them make us understand

Breath of life, expand my lungs
Help me find the words to say
Let me heed the words sang by the rocks
Who taught me to how to pray

It is fascinating to me that music and poetry always fit so nicely together. Probably because music is designed to take advantage of the rhythm poetry so naturally exploits anyway.  It is the most natural progression from poetry, and music is absolutely a fantastic form of worship that became so prevalent it is still actively practiced by most modern churches.  Because of that, music is one of the most fantastic and influential forms of worship, even if the actual words are unknown.

There is a song being sung throughout creation, and that song will never really be silenced. Jesus said as much when he talked about the rocks speaking up were everyone else to be silent. And while only humans respond to rhythm, we certainly aren’t the only beings who sing. We are but one voice of many on the choir of creation.  We, along with all other beings, are singing the song breathed into us during creation. We are writing and singing the creation song at all times. We are a part of something great, put together by God to connect us all so that we could understand what it is to really be a part of creation.

There is also song in silence, just as musicians are encouraged to “play the silence.”  Silence reveals parts of ourselves we probably would not have been able to see otherwise. For some, silence is uncomfortable. In a world as loud and hectic as it is today, is there any wonder why?

There is a song being sung throughout creation. There is poetry in the silence. In silence, it is possible to hear the voice of God speaking to us. It is because of this, Jesus often went off on His own to pray. So He could hear God speak back to Him. Silent prayer is often the best way to hear the words to write and, by allowing ourselves these moments of silence for writing, writing itself becomes worship and connects us to the song God breathed into our lungs at the beginning. We can connect wholly with God, the Word and truly begin to understand what that means.

That said, there is a sort of responsibility on our part to utilize those words correctly. Especially when it comes to what we write, our words will live on in some way. So when people hear you speak or read your writings, are they hearing the song of creation? Are you connected with God, the Word who spoke the world into creation? As we go out about our daily lives, I implore you to listen to the song creation is singing, and when you hear something that stands out as significant, write it down. Take a silent moment to really hone in and listen to the song and put into words the song being sung. Let God, the Word, speak through your life and your writings, so all of God’s gifts can be shown through you.

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A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Friendship with Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that people who pray to see God and have their prayers answered rarely ask the same thing twice.  Like the Israelites who met God face to face on the mountainside of Mt. Sinai, we cower in fear when God singes us with a presence that is overwhelming and, at times, threatening.

We keep God at arm’s length.  What if God searches us deeply as the scriptures attest (Ps. 139:1)?  What if the unveiling of God unveils all our secrets (Luke 12:2)?  What if God snags us in our selfishness and zaps us dead if we venture too close (2 Samuel 6:7)?

We preachers speak every week on the intimacy of God.  We encourage people to know God as they are fully known, to grow in a personal relationship with God.  Yet, God, ever mysterious, evades us and meets us with silence–God, immortal, invisible, the One only wise.

That is why we need Jesus.  In Jesus we hear a familiar, human voice.  In Jesus, we sense that God chose the best way to come near us so that we might not be singed, but experience a lightness of yoke and the easiness of God’s burden (Matthew 11:30).  We are not off the hook with Jesus; rather, we are hooked by the great Fisherman who calls us to do the same for others.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition maps out a more personal relationship with God than the fright that God sometimes engenders.  One of my favorite hymns, What a Friend We have in Jesus, teaches us that we should never be discouraged, be open and share our sorrows, and realize that Jesus meets us in the midst of our vulnerability and weakness, not in spite of it.

Jesus is not out to get us, but to bridge the gap between us and God, that we might “carry everything to God in prayer.”

The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is “not considered to be an example of great literary writing, its simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857” –Kenneth Osbeck.

Other hymns on friendship have comforted the church in ages past.  Jesus is All the World to Me ends every verse with the simple affirmation that Jesus “is my friend.”  I’ve Found a Friend, O Such a Friend speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial act of dying on the cross for us, likening his friendship to that of a tapestry of love: “He drew me with cords of love…And round my heart still closely twine, for I am His.”  No, Not One admits that “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus.”

A contemporary song by Casting Crowns, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, is a song of confession.  It acknowledges our failure to befriend others who need Jesus like we:

Always looking around but never looking up, I’m so double minded
A plank-eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

The church’s hymnody provides God’s people not only with an alternative narrative, but also an alternative vision of who God is for us and how God relates to us. (Casting Crowns’ song is appropriate: “Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers“).

God is not the seething, besieging white-haired judge who zaps people, but One who faithfully pursues us in a personal relationship through Christ.  It is a model of friendship, not animosity or antagonism.

Of course, this requires work.  We no longer have an excuse to run from God.  We cannot state that God is too powerful or scary for us.  In Jesus, God has removed every hindrance, and we have to take responsibility in cultivating that friendship.  Like friendships in the flesh, our friendship with Jesus requires time, patience, communication, honesty, and trust.  This is a great task, but it is among the greatest blessings we are entrusted.

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Shape of Liturgical Action

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

I fear that some people see hymns only as a nostalgic remnants from the church of yesteryear, that hymns are only useful to pass the time at funerals or revival services.  Hymns, however, play more of a role than that, and research suggests that hymns contribute to our theology and vision of the world just as much as scripture, prayer, and sermons do on a weekly basis.

Hymns are not the stuff of a stuffy church; rather, they shape beliefs and have the power to inspire ministry and missions with an ever creative God who gives us a song to sing.

I have come to appreciate a group of contemporary hymns (that’s not an oxymoron, people–yes, liturgical artists still write hymns for the church!) that empower and engage congregations, craft theology, and embody God’s mission for the world.  Some are better than others, and most rely on well-known tunes, but they contribute something fresh to a church still in need of a “new song” to sing (Psalm 98:1).

These hymns have in common the theme of justice.  Primarily published in closing pages of the Celebrating Grace hymnal, they speak of God, our relationship to God, and our fundamental Christian concern for God’s world and our neighbors.  They call us to believe, to decide, and to act.

One hymn is Show Us How to Stand for Justice, authored by Martin Leckebusch and copyrighted in 2000.  Set to the tune of “Pleading Savior,” it contains themes that clearly define the hopes and dreams of churches that stand on the cusp of a new century.

The first verse addresses the need for collaboration among Christians in order to reflect an inclusive and grace-filled Gospel.  We “work for what is right” and “walk within the light.”  We admonish each other to share with neighbors and fight against the greed that defined economic bubbles sweeping the late 1990s.  It is collaborative, but pro-life; hesitant with success, but rich with mercy.

The second verse deals with our hearts and minds, knowing all too well that our motives must match the sincerity of our actions.  It places the very essence of justice in the life and sacrifice of Jesus our Savior.

The third verse intends to send out a congregation on mission, mindful that our lifestyles not just at church, but Monday through Saturday, should reflect the love, compassion and grace of the very God we worship on Sunday.  It is not something we do alone, but with the “Spirit’s gracious prompting.”  The theology of this song is not introverted or insular — it assumes that the Spirit is at work in the world, and we are to join God out there.

Another hymn is Let Truth and Mercy Find Here by Ken Medema. I’ve had the privilege of worshiping with Mr. Medema at the helm.  He is a songwriter and musician who, though blind at the very young age, offers music both insightful and full of vision for sacred liturgy.

One of the most powerful ideas in this hymn is its insistence that, by sharing together in the love of Christ, congregations and the church at large have the power to turn strangers into friends.  Whereas “scheming darkness and evil power” may manipulate people, communities, and nations for its own sake, Christ’s “peace and justice” is a mighty stream that can cut through the harshest environments and pave a way for a united, dreaming community.

God’s truth is a “flame” that is “blazing,” one that draws people towards the Gospel, but then enacts the truths of Pentecost.  Spirit-filled people have visions, dream dreams, and prophesy on behalf of others, for the sake of Christ’s compassion, and for the salvation of a world still in need of redemption.  This is not an individual task only–it is the fundamental calling of the church in the 21st century, born out of the need to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation.

Hymnody that celebrates God’s provision and encourages God’s people to act justly are nothing new.  These are gems in the mines of a sacred church called from one generation to another to serve the world which “God so loved” and, by doing so, bring justice to bear in season and out.  The words may be new and tunes familiar, but it is a theme that shapes our theology of place, time, and sacred space all the same.